CNS PHOTO | LISA JOHNSTON
Advent is the season of joyful expectation before Christmas, not the time to celebrate Christmas. That season begins Dec. 25 and continues to the Baptism of the Lord (Jan 9 in 2011).
The Yuletide merriment starts early. In eager anticipation of Christmas, the tree is decorated the first week of December. Caught up in the holiday consumerism, shoppers rush out to buy gifts for friends and family. Following the turkey dinner Dec. 25, Christmas is over.
But is this the way Catholics are supposed to celebrate Christmas?
Contemporary marketing and media might lead one to believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas end on Christmas Day. In fact, the Twelve Days are the festive days leading from Dec. 25 to Epiphany (traditionally Jan. 6).
"The secular world builds up to Christmas, then stops," said Bernadette Gasslein, editor of Celebrate!, an award-winning liturgy magazine.
"In a sense, the Christmas season in the secular world has backed up into Advent, and now it's backed up into November. I saw the first Christmas things for sale in Costco in August."
By the time Christmas day arrives, people are often stressed, exhausted from the parties, preparations and shopping for presents.
"If we could only discipline ourselves to celebrate the Christmas season when the Church celebrates it, we could have some different kind of fun," said Gasslein.
"There's a whole series of interesting and important feasts that follow in the week after Christmas, which is really quite fascinating," she said.
The Baptism of the Lord ends the Christmas season. It is celebrated on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. In 2011, Epiphany is marked on Jan. 2 and the Baptism of the Lord Jan. 9.
CNS PHOTOS | GREGORY SHEMITZ / NANCY WIECHEC
The feasts of the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 9) and the Epiphany (Jan. 2) are essential parts of the Catholic celebration of Christmas./h3>
Saints remembered in the time immediately following Christmas include St. John the Evangelist (Dec. 27), the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28) and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (Jan. 4).
"One of the things people can do that the Church recommends, is that we don't have Christmas parties during Advent," suggested Gasslein.
"We should have Christmas parties during the Christmas season, which goes from Dec. 25 through to Jan. 9. We're all partied out before Christmas, so wouldn't it be nice to have a couple of those parties switched to the other times of the year, at the beginning of January, during the actual Christmas season?"
A tradition associated with Epiphany is sharing a kings' cake. The custom involves a coin being baked into a cake, and whoever is served the slice of cake with the coin inside becomes the king for a day, in honour of the three kings.
"One of the things I encourage families to do is not put their Christmas music away after Christmas," said Gasslein.
"If they have Christmas music they enjoy or Christmas music on their iPods, do not turn it off. Keep it going for the whole Christmas season.
"Some of those carols are a way of entering into the mystery of the season more deeply."
A Christmas carol appropriate at Epiphany is We Three Kings. A Christmas carol in association with Dec. 28, the feast day of the Holy Innocents, is Lullay Thou Little Tiny Child.
"It has a totally different mood from any other Christmas carol. It is a consoling lullaby. It is about the whole issue of the killing of the children," said Gasslein.
Sandy Prather, executive director of Star of the North Retreat Centre, said that people who do not properly embrace Advent tend to not embrace Christmas either.
"Advent is a season of the Church that should be seen in our minds as important as Lent. If we prepared for Christmas by doing Advent properly and we took it as seriously as Lent, leading up to Easter for the 50 days, at Christmas we would be prepared to celebrate afterwards as well," said Prather.
Leading up to Christmas, she suggests lighting the Advent wreath, adding the five Christ candles, and continuing with prayers and daily Scripture readings.
Advent is a time for focusing spiritually on what's important in our lives. In a time of excess and rush, and the culture of the Christmas frenzy is emphasizing buying, partying and feasting, Advent invites people to pause and enter into reflective silence.
As the beginning of the liturgical year, Advent is a time of expectant waiting, preparing for Christmas, and a counter-cultural call to a society caught up in consumerism. A time of serious preparation, Christmas is also a time of anticipated joy.
"Our culture over-commercializes everything and it gets so busy," said Prather.
"As much as we can we should enter into an Advent spirit of waiting and extra prayer time and trying to find silence, maybe even taking a day for fasting each week. Then we're longing for Christmas to come, and Christmas is more than just one day."
Too often people celebrate in excess beforehand, without waiting. She advises taking time off work for visiting friends and family between Christmas and the New Year.
"If you've waited properly, then you're not all tuckered out," said Prather.
Sister Annata Brockman called Christmastime a season of love. God gave the world the greatest gift, his son Jesus. He came to save the world from its sins. That's why people continue the tradition of sharing gifts with loved ones.
The prophet Isaiah suggested bringing comfort to people. A lot of people view Christmas as a time for showing generosity for those in need.
The liturgical season invites people to give to charity, and demonstrate an increased sensitivity for the homeless and hungry. Going beyond a simple exchange of gifts that fill our own cupboards with material goods that we don't need, Christmas is a time for helping others.
"The way to celebrate Christmas is to continue celebrating the season all year long because we were asked to love God and love one another," said Brockman.
"If we can continue working on accepting all people and trying our best to cherish them and love them, then we're living that Christmas spirit all year long."
Wherever one goes, one will find different Christmas traditions, and various ways of celebrating, she said.
"Every country celebrates Christmas in a little different way, but basically it's a season of love where people show their appreciation for each other. If they have hurt anyone, they try to be reconciled."
While the secular world's approach to Christmas differs greatly from the Church's, Brockman is convinced that entering into celebrations with a spirit of love is what matters most.
"We're trying so hard in our world to be aware of other people and carry on the command to love and serve one another, working together as a people of God.
"Maybe we don't practise Christmas traditions the way our ancestors used to practise, but it will turn around again. History always repeats. We become lax in one age and then fervent again in the next age," she said.
Young people are fixated on preparing for Christmas in a materialistic way. But there are things they can do to help them understand what Advent and Christmas are really all about.
Some Catholic schools have Jesse trees that can be useful for teaching students about the Bible. Akin to stained glass windows telling the story of salvation, the Jesse tree represents the genealogy of Jesus Christ, and tells the story of God's salvation plan from creation and throughout the Old Testament, to the coming of the Messiah.